Home Recipe ContentSimple Lentil Soup

Simple Lentil Soup

Published : April 18, 2019

"To this day the Greek/Lebanese (Phoenicians) recipe for Lentil soup is for me the original. "
Words + Recipe: Simon Owen

Easter, and the traditional change of season is upon us and I will resist my usual temptation to celebrate with a braise of bunny.  This is a personal tradition to try to balance my children’s upbringing against the twin evils of cheap multi national chocolate and organised religion.

Easter, traditionally a pagan festival high-jacked by the Anglo Saxon Christians (not even the proper Roman ones) around the eighth century was always a celebration of renewal (remembering that it brings spring in the Northern hemisphere). It was traditionally accompanied by sacrifices to one godhead or another.  Most civilisations had a festival of renewal, return of the sun etc right back to the resurrection of the Egyptian god Horus, and this is now ours.

Being of Celtic, specifically Druid, origin we preferred our sacrifices with virgins.  Virgins aren’t quite what they once were so I settled early on for a bunny.  It seemed to tie things up nicely, put life into perspective and build a little tradition of our own.  Typically that braise would turn into a ragu, and the children would be engaged to help produce the pasta.

I remember vividly a bowl of pappardelle al ragu di coniglio at the old Alto’s in Subiaco.  A work of art between Steve Scaffidi and his mama Ada.  I’ve eaten some spectacular plates of pasta around the world and in many famous houses, but that bowl remains one the three of four most sublime pasta’s I’ve ever been near.  So for many years, around Easter I would valiantly try to replicate it as my sacrifice to the gods that mattered to me.  However, to this day, whilst some were pretty good, they remain mere mortal ‘platonic’ representations of the real thing!

Now minus the child labour to assist, or to try to impress, this change of seasons brings another overwhelming desire …. and my thoughts instinctively turn to Soup! 

It will be impossible for you to follow Flourish over the next 6 months and not to return to the subject of soup several times.  Off the top of my head I can guarantee at least two more deep investigations.  First, that miracle that is Chicken soup, and particularly Asian chicken soup.  The subject could almost sustain a book and television series on its own, which it will duly get when I can afford to fund it.

Secondly, Minestrone which I could comfortably live off, in one guise or another, for most of winter.

Why?

Its delicious. It enriches your soul. Along with the other great building block of life, bread, it satisfies on every level, both physical and metaphysical.  It can be made economically, both in terms of money and time, and therefor it should be one of the foundations upon which your home is built.

If you are either ‘sad’ like me then Sunday afternoon is perfect, or if you are fortunate to have some flexible time on another day during the week, then an hours work amongst a few of cooking time will sort the family’s evening meals for at least two days, and at least a brilliant lunch or two for school, work etc. 

Equally satisfying is that you’d be hard pressed to spend more than $40.00, more likely half that!

For this first homage I could have turned to a number of candidates.  The great Moroccan (North African) Harira or a Mediteranean Bouillabaisse but I have settled on a particular favourite. Lentil Soup. There are a number of reasons for this.  There is the sheer blinding simplicity of this, particularly if you take the most traditional version, whilst hitting all the right spots. At the end of the day, however, it conveniently gives me the opportunity in this first ‘edition’ to address the issue of the Paleo religion.

I have used the term religion deliberately as that is the appropriate label for a loose collective of unsubstantiated mystical beliefs that rely of a leap of faith as opposed to any rational approach to the issues.

This is a topic to which we may return to time and time again for one reason or another but suffice it for now to advise that if you are of the devoted Paleo persuasion you are welcomed into these pages but you will be the occasional subject of derision.  We are not Paleo man, nor have we been for a very very long time.  We were not healthier then than now, we do not live the lifestyle that accompanied that diet nor are we likely to.  If the world were to adopt the Paleo diet either three quarters would die within the first year or the entire planet’s environment would break down, such would be the strain on the agricultural systems to produce sufficient calories to sustain life sans the evils of grains, legumes and pulses.  In other words it’s a very indulgent, selfish and foolish cult. 

Given that the earliest archaeological dating of lentils is from the Paleolithic layers of the Franchthi cave in Greece and not long after in Syria, its difficult to reconcile the new found wisdom that they formed no part of the Neo-Paleo diet plan.  Enough said for now.

Vive le legume.

It's as old as the hills and its development accompanied wheat and barley so as far as food goes …. it's been there since the beginning and features in cultures from the Mesopotamians to the Jews, the Greeks and particularly the Phoenicians.  It is this heritage and probably at least 7000 years of uninterrupted repetition that we now have the privilege of. 

Notwithstanding that privilege of tradition (which should be honoured at all times) we are going to do two versions.  The first is how it has ‘always been’.  But without disrespect, it is possible to honour tradition and still allow occasional room for improvement or embellishment.  Give ourselves a little creative licence.  What needs to be remembered is that sometimes tradition was merely confined by poverty, lack of alternatives or overbearing mothers.  There’s nothing wrong with cutting ourselves a little slack, spoiling ourselves, if we are able to.  This is the beauty of food, its traditions and the inherited genetics.

To this day the Greek/Lebanese (Phoenicians) recipe for Lentil soup is for me the original.  You need:

Ingredients

A big pot

3 cups of brown lentils (though strangely sometimes they can be called green, in any event the large flattish ones that are not split peas)

2 decent sized onions, 3 if you prefer - chopped

1 large potato, peeled and diced, if you wish

2 lemons and 3 large slices of peel from one of them

½ bunch of silverbeet or ½ a bag of washed spinach (baby or otherwise)…. NOT KALE.  In the Greek version, spinach or ‘horta’ would be substituted.  Horta is often translated as ‘local greens’, but is more accurately described as ‘roadside weeds’.

2 tablespoons of five spice also known as mixed spice

6 cloves of garlic

salt

oil

good plain yoghurt

 

Prep + cook

It’s a good idea to wash the lentils thoroughly in a bowl, gently tipping out the water and some ‘foreign matter’ a few times. Some recipes will also suggest you rummage through to remove any small stones.  Clearly a more rural product that I’m used to buying!

3.5 litres of water, the lentils, onions, lemon peel and potato are all brought to the boil and simmered for an hour.

Crush the garlic in a mortar after adding a good tablespoon of quality salt flakes/crystals, then combine in about 4 tablespoons of good olive oil.

Add to the pot and stir through briefly and keep simmering.

Separate stems from leaves of the silverbeet, wash everything thoroughly.  Slice stems into smaller pieces and add to the pot.  Scrunch up the leaves and roughly chop into slices/pieces (say 1.5 cm) and add 30 minutes later.

You can skip this step entirely and add a couple of large handfuls of spinach directly to each individual bowl before adding the soup to serve, very roughly torn maybe, and the spinach will wilt in the time it takes to get it to the table and begin to eat.

 

This obviously makes the simplest version, and simplest does not mean in any way compromised on taste or satisfaction.  At its simplest therefor you are looking at chopping a couple of onions and rinsing the lentils ….. then the garlic paste.  Say 15 minutes max, including peeling the garlic?  Good soup doesn’t come much easier.

With or without silverbeet, and assuming you have the opportunity, I would be leaving it to simmer for a further hour if possible.  This allows the lentils to break down and add that lovely hearty texture to the meal.  Next day can sometimes be even better.

Add the juice of at least one lemon and check the seasoning.  You’ve added salt with the garlic, but don’t be scared to go a further good teaspoon at a time and tasting.  It needs to be as savoury as you wish.

It should be served with lemon wedges, plain yoghurt for stirring through liberally and bread or toast of your choice.

Alternatives

I don’t think any of these variations or additions demean the integrity and tradition of the original.  One of the great joys of cooking for me is to be able to borrow from the genius of several complimentary traditions and use the privilege of our ecumenical perspective to perhaps add where culture, cost or availability did not permit.

1.         Given my personal preference for a slightly fuller and diverse flavour profile, I borrow a version of the ‘soffritto’ from other Mediterranean cuisine to add a little variety.  Consequently, I begin by frying the onion, 4-6 sticks of celery, a fennel bulb possibly, a couple of medium carrots and maybe a leek instead of one of the onions, and 4-6 cloves of garlic, all chopped reasonably rustically in oil over a medium heat for around 30 minutes to let the flavours develop.

2.         Instead of the mixed spice, I would normally take 1.5 tsps of caraway seeds and coriander seeds and 1 tsp of fennel and cumin seeds and maybe 10 allspice berries.  Heat in a small pan or pot to toast and pungent then tip in to the mortar and grind to medium fine powder.  This varies from the five spice by leaving out the cinnamon and clove but substituting the different warmth and earthiness of caraway and allspice (though some versions of five spice will include allspice).  Half of this is added to the soffritto, and the other half as in 4. below.

3.         In the interests of texture, mostly, I have started using 2 cups of the brown lentils and 1 cup of Persian red lentils which are smaller, rounder and resist the temptation to breakdown a little more.  The result is ultimately that lovely creamy texture from the dissolved brown lentils with some nice variation for the smaller Persian’s which have retained a little more ‘form’.

4.         Because we are not adopting the ‘tip it all in with water’ method here, there is the opportunity to add the drained lentils to the soffritto, along with the remaining half of the spice mix and a little further oil and let the flavours develop for 4 or 5 minutes over a higher heat.

5.         Then add your water, though I often deepen the flavour by using half chicken stock.  The Campbells for this purpose keeps you well within budget without sacrificing quality or flavour.  Simmer for at least 2 hours.

6.         I use the spinach directly in the serving bowls but the choice is yours.

7.         The final embellishment, which may be just a little ‘catholic’ for some, hearkens back to the beautiful Harira of Morocco.  Along with and couple of good spoons of yoghurt, a couple of good teaspoons of Harissa is just magic for those that want some ‘fire’.  On the subject of Harissa, please feel free to research and prepare your own blend, but I’m never going to make a batch that is any better that the imitable Ms Manfield, the Queen of spice.  So in a busy world why try?

Even the most pimped version is not going to set you back more that 45 minutes of pretty simple prep, and the rest is gentle simmering. Forget the spice mix and just use Five Spice, stick just with celery and onion … whatever you feel like, ‘cos the simplest version is just lovely in any event.

If only everything this satisfying in life were this easy.




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